“My road to the White House starts with a refugee story,” said Tina Tchen, former assistant to President Barack Obama and chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, speaking at University of Redlands last week to a crowd of students, faculty, and community members.
“Only in this country can you go from one generation’s immigrant story, to their daughter, some 50 years later, arriving back in China on Air Force One representing the First Lady of the United States,” she said.
Tchen grew up in Chicago, where her career and perspective were shaped by her involvement in the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. After graduating from Harvard University and Northwestern Law School, she practiced corporate law for 23 years, during which time she also dabbled in the political sphere. At some point in these activities, she met the Obamas.
“I can’t really tell you how to get to the White House,” she said with her signature boisterous laugh. “I just met this guy with big ears and a funny-sounding name … Who knew? He became president of the United States.”
Images in her slide show—which ranged from whimsical photos of gingerbread houses crafted by White House chefs to shots of intimate gatherings with figures such as actress Meryl Streep and civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis—provided an insider’s perspective of the White House.
In the talk, sponsored by the Associated Students of the University of Redlands (ASUR), Tchen also described her duties as part of the Office of Public Engagement in the early years of the Obama administration. She was responsible for planning and organizing important guest visits—from taking tennis star Billie Jean King to lunch (when Tchen lost track of her in the White House kitchen) to finding just the right brand of beverage for the meeting now commonly known as the “Beer Summit.”
As Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, Tchen worked on an impressive array of initiatives, including Let’s Move!, It’s On Us, and Let Girls Learn, as well as becoming the executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. “Luckily, I was blessed with a boss who knew how to relate to people,” she said.
While her White House days are now behind her, Tchen is still working for positive change. As a partner at Buckley Sandler LLP in Chicago, she is currently focusing on helping businesses establish a more equitable culture in the workplace, advocating for equal pay, and highlighting the benefits of diversity.
Most recently she was instrumental in establishing the National Women’s Law Center Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund with 300 women working in Hollywood. The fund connects those who experience sexual misconduct in the workplace with legal and public relations assistance.
So far, the fund has raised $21 million and has received 3,800 requests for help, largely from low-income workers in 60 different industries. Some 800 lawyers have also stepped forward to provide pro bono work for survivors of sexual harassment and assault.
“You young people are a great hope for the future,” Tchen said to the audience. “Your commitment to changing the world and to each other is what the world is going to rely on and what I rely on and hope for.”